by Cory Marsh

– The philosophical and theological masterpiece called Ecclesiastes is framed by the superlative construct “Vanity of vanities” (Eccl 1:2; Eccl 12:8). In the midst of this inclusio, out of his personal experience, Solomon provides ample reasons why he thought “all of life is vanity.” This declaration is the result of Solomon exploring such life-topics as pleasure and work (Eccl 2:1-11), wealth (2:18-26), friendship (Eccl 4:7-16), religion (5:1-6:9), and even wisdom itself (2:12-27). All of these are shown to be, in the ultimate sense, unfulfilling. The translated word chosen to convey this concept in the ESV Bible is “vanity.” While “vanity” conjures up thoughts of selfish pride and conceit here in the West—a nuance lacking in its Hebrew root—the word should be understood in its Semitic context as “vanity” appears in Ecclesiastes a total of 38 times.

The Hebrew word translated “vanity,” הֲבֵ֤ל (hevel or hebel, and even Abel, cf. Gen 4:2), carries with it a colorful range of meaning. In fact, a brief survey of several English translations of Eccl 1:2 will demonstrate that the word is rather nuanced:

ESV: “‘Vanity of vanities’, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’”

NET: “‘Futile! Futile!’ laments the Teacher, ‘Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!’”

NIV: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’”

While acknowledging the term’s nuanced character, the most consistent word picture of the word hebel is that of “breath” or “vapor.” Because of this it carries a meaning of “temporary,” and stresses its subject as being “unable to be controlled” or in Solomon’s poetic expression, “chasing after wind” (1:17; 2:11; 4:4; 6:9). It is a word Job was familiar with as he used it to describe his life as wasting away and fleeting toward death (Job 7:16; cf. Ps 39:5, 11). According to Rooker, “Hebel conveys notions of transience and insubstantiality,”[1] while Barrick employs the word picture of a bubble to describe its meaning: “Bubbles are delightfully beautiful, multicolored shimmering globes dancing in the air gracefully changing their form until poof! they disappear in a brief shiny cascade of tiny droplets.”[2]

So, what does all this mean for the believer today? Ecclesiastes makes it clear that a life lived solely “under the sun” (i.e., a life lived apart from the fear of God) will only bring misery and a deep sense of dissatisfaction. Without living in a conscience moment-by-moment existence under God, all of life’s benefits are hebel (meaningless, futile, vanity). This is because death is the great equalizer for both the fool and the wise, the reach and the poor; indeed, death comes to us all (2:14-16). Because God has placed “eternity on every person’s heart” (3:11), human beings can ironically seek to quench a thirst that cannot be quenched by earthly life itself. Therefore hebel becomes the best term to describe an attempted life without God as it is a life of “nothingness, perishable, void.”[3] As such, the word hebel powerfully leads the reader of the book to find satisfaction in the eternal God above all things.

Jesus (the eternal God made visible) told us to stop seeking supposed unending pleasures, and bearing burdens in life that will never ultimately satisfy. This includes our work, our pleasures, our relationships, even our service in church if it is not done from the right motive. In Jesus Christ alone do we find the rest our souls are desperately seeking (Matt 11:28-30). Resting in and enjoying life in Christ is the only true, lasting satisfaction which Solomon was seeking when he looked at life and declared it vanity.


[1] Mark F. Rooker, “Ecclesiastes,” in The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament, ed. by Eugene H. Merrill, Mark F. Rooker, and Michael A. Grisanti (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2011), 541.


[2] William D. Barrick, Ecclesiastes: The Philippians of the Old Testament (Scotland, UK: Focus, 2011), 12.


[3] William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2000), s.v. הֲבֵ֤ל”.” Bible Works Software.

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